In keeping with its designation as New Jersey’s oldest independent school, a group of 8-12 graders at Rutgers Preparatory School have been immersed and engaged in an Innovation Program entitled “Hands On History.” Under the guidance of teachers Tim Cohen and Arika Easley-Houser, The Hands-On History Innovation Program gives students an opportunity to engage with various subjects within the field of history. The program’s aim is to help students take the skills they’ve been learning in the classroom–critical thinking, analysis of facts, and interpretation of multiple points of view–and apply them to real situations. These could include investigations of local history, family history, architecture, digital history, archiving, historical reenactments, etc.
Recently, four first-person historical interpreters and historical re-enactors came to campus to connect with our Hands on History students, who in turn had some great questions for our visitors.
During their visit, the roles of John Adams, Harriet Beecher Stowe, a local civil war soldier, and NJ colonial Gov. William Franklin were taken on, respectively, by Peyton Dixon, Kim Hanley, Scott Saunders, and Kurt Epps.
After interacting with the historical figures in character, students asked the interpreters and re-enactors, “What drew you to play the particular characters you were playing today?”
Kurt Epps answered, “William Franklin and his father, Benjamin Franklin, wound up on opposite sides of the revolutionary war, one of the defining struggles of our nation. I do think that an understanding of history is essential to any understanding of our current situation, so I’m happy to have an opportunity to bring this history to life, especially for young people.”
Kim Hanley (the Executive Director of the American Historical Theatre) said, “I went to school for ballet and history, and was very involved in theater. I found my way to this work through a couple (the Summerfields) who had been portraying George and Martha Washington and who thought I could probably be a creditable Abigail Adams, and then once I started doing it, more characters kind of found me as a need or outlet arose.”
Peyton Dixon shared: “I have a friend who plays Thomas Jefferson, and in learning about my friend’s process, I found that no one seemed quite as invested in John Adams. Because I’d always been interested in Adams, I decided to try to get to the point that I could try to do him justice.
I also play Theodore Roosevelt now, which happened through a call for look-a-likes. I saw the notice and thought, ‘Could I look like Theodore Roosevelt? Probably?’ and sure enough, I was able to get close enough that it seemed like something worth working on.”
Finally, Scott Saunders explained that with re-enacting, “different people select different regiments, depending on what period of history they’re interested in, or what they feel they have a connection to. I met a group that was portraying a regiment in Georgia, but it included some guys from New Jersey and Connecticut. So of course I called them traitors, but we all hung out afterwards.”
Students were also curious about what advice the guests would give to someone who is interested in getting started in this kind of work?
“Research, research, research,” said Peyton Dixon with a smile. Of course only time will tell if the next great living embodiment of Abigail Adams or Alexander Hamilton will be a Rutgers Prep graduate!
Rutgers Prep’s Innovation Program offers students in grades 8-12 an opportunity to engage deeply in an area of interest for them in ways that go beyond a typical classroom approach. This year’s Innovation strands are giving Rutgers Prep students a chance to engage an impressively diverse set of topics, ranging from Business and Entrepreneurship to the [st]ages project, which will connect students with elders in our community, both in person and through the creation of a work of art. The Sports Analytics group will be coordinating their own conference, while another group of students has been in the process of auditioning prospective speakers for their upcoming TEDx Conference. The Hands on History group, along with all the other Innovation Program strands, will culminate in an Innovation Capstone event in May, which will give members of the Rutgers Prep and broader community a chance to marvel at just how much these students have learned.
From a developmental standpoint, the middle school years are rich with possibility. At Rutgers Prep, our divisional leadership is hard at work ensuring that our students have opportunities to develop in areas that sometimes fall outside of the traditional academic disciplines… but are no less critical to the development of our students. This commitment to keeping our curriculum fresh is evident in both our middle school’s Ideas and Innovation programming, as well as in the students’ “Cycle Classes,” which students rotate through over the course of each academic year.
This year’s sixth grade Cycle Classes, for example, are Citizen Kid, Digital Kid, Art, and Latin. In their Citizen Kid classes, middle school students will grapple with primary sources and the civic responsibilities of citizens. As New Jersey heads into a gubernatorial race, our students will have an opportunity to interact directly with at least one of the gubernatorial candidates. We encourage our students to not only seek out the topics with which they are passionately engaged as learners, but also to actively consider their role as future citizens.
Students in our Digital Kid Cycle Class will be learning to keyboard, thereby increasing the efficiency of so much of the rest of their work. (Although based on research about how we learn best, the Rutgers Prep middle school also maintains a division-wide commitment to note-taking and journaling by hand.) Digital Kid students also work with recording their own voices, eventually moving to podcasting. This focus on developing one’s voice is also a division-wide commitment, as the school makes a conscious effort to ensure that students become more comfortable as public speakers and presenters. (This commitment is particularly in evidence when our middle schoolers travel beyond campus in the service of learning; at a recent trip to Philadelphia, members of the US Constitution Center’s staff were impressed with our seven graders’ poise and self-possession.)
Much of the thinking about curricular offerings at Rutgers Prep is driven and supported by the latest research; art classes are overwhelmingly associated with positive outcomes for students, and introducing students to Latin as sixth graders gives them a taste of language study so that they’ll be better prepared to select Latin or Spanish as a part of their regular seventh grade curriculum. Middle school-aged students are primed to embrace new ideas and get started on the development of sophisticated skills that will foster lifelong learning interests. At Rutgers Prep, our middle school curriculum is designed to provide students with a range of tools to support that intellectual development and enable effective learning.